Teen cancer researcher says all good discoveries start with 1 small idea
Published Friday, June 21, 2013 9:35AM EDT
It was the death of a family friend from pancreatic cancer that inspired high school student Jack Andraka to learn more, setting him on a journey that led him to invent a paper sensor that can detect pancreatic cancer in just minutes.
Since that discovery last year at the age of 15, Andraka’s innovative research has captured the science world’s attention. On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama honoured him as one of this year’s Champions of Change, an award given to those promoting and using open scientific data and publications to accelerate progress and improve our world.
On Friday, Andraka will be a presenter at Toronto’s IdeaCity conference, where he will discuss how anyone can have a simple idea that can revolutionize the world, no matter what your age.
Andraka says his headline-making discovery started with a simple Internet search to learn more about pancreatic cancer. He admits that at the time, he didn’t even know where the pancreas was or what it did.
He soon discovered that the cancer's five-year survival was only 6 per cent, in part because the disease typically causes no symptoms until it has spread throughout the body.
Andraka also discovered that the only test for pancreatic cancer is one that’s been used for about 60 years, and is usually given only after a doctor already suspects an advanced case of the disease.
So Andraka set out to create a new cancer-screening test that would be quick, simple and accurate, as well as inexpensive and minimally invasive. His quest began, he say, with research on his home computer.
“I just read a lot of articles,” he told CTV’s Canada AM Friday. “So I used Google and Wikipedia and I found this database that describes the 8,000 different proteins that are in your bloodstream when you have different types of cancers.”
Andraka started looking at each protein to see if one of them could be a good marker for early-stage pancreatic cancer.
“And on the 4,000th try, I found a protein that could work. That protein is called mesothelin,” he said. “It’s just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill protein unless you have pancreatic, ovarian or lung cancer, in which case, it’s found in very high levels in your bloodstream.”
Andraka’s next step was to come up with a way of detecting the protein. It so happens that around the same time, he was just been beginning to learn about carbon nanotubes, which are extremely tiny cylinders of carbon that scientists are just starting to use in chemistry tests.
Andraka's eureka moment came when he was in a high-school biology class, covertly reading an article on nanotubes while half-listening to the teacher lecture on antibodies that can bind to particular proteins in the blood.
He suddenly realized he might be able to lace a nanotube network with mesothelin-specific antibodies onto a strip of paper and use that to detect the protein biomarker in a pinprick of blood.
“I just kind of stuck two ideas together and came up with this paper sensor,” he said.
The teen emailed his idea to 200 researchers. Only one, a Johns Hopkins pancreatic cancer researcher named Anirban Maitra, replied and invited him to his lab.
Andraka spent the next seven months working on creating his test paper, going into the lab every day after school, through weekends and holidays. He eventually came up with a prototype and received an international patent on the technology. He is now in talks with several biotech companies about getting the test on the market.
In the meantime, he’s become a bit of a media darling in the science world, and was awarded first prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last year. Now, Andraka is learning about what it takes to get an idea from a lab workbench into cancer clinics.
“It’s been interesting getting a feel for the business world at age 16. I mean how many 16-year-olds get to do that? It’s crazy and it’s pretty cool,” he says.
These days, Andraka’s not at school much anymore, what with business meetings with biotech companies, conducting TED talks and meeting with the president. His attendance rate at school this year was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10 per cent.
But Andraka says he enjoys talking with people and showing them that anyone can become a scientist these days with the help of a good idea and well-chosen web searches.
“The Internet is really this amazing thing. It doesn’t matter what your age, or gender, or ethnicity is; it just matters what your ideas are,” he says.
“You don’t have to have multiple degrees to have your ideas valued. If you just have an idea and imagination, anything can happen.”